What's wrong with my meter?
That's what many customers ask when they call Clark Public Utilities' energy counselors. They blame the meter for a spike in their electric bill. When customers can't explain an increase in energy usage, the energy counselors act as detectives of sorts, said DuWayne Dunham, who leads that team for the utility.
"We always take a close look at the usage history for patterns or clues and ask a lot of questions. And sometimes we need to visit the home to do a visual inspection," Dunham said. "For me, I like the challenge of finding areas where customers are wasting energy and don't even know it. And then we can recommend solutions that make a difference."
On an average day, the energy counselors at Clark Public Utilities receive 40 phone inquiries from utility customers who want to know why their power bill is suddenly higher, or how to use an energy rebate, or the best way to weatherize.
The energy counselor program has been part of the utility's customer service effort since the early 1980s, when the Bonneville Power Administration began offering consumer residential weatherization rebates. Since then, the utility has continued to provide conservation advice to both residential and commercial customers.
Clark Public Utilities' four energy counselors take turns answering the customer hotline, 360-992-3355, from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday. Each counselor is also responsible for making field visits in a section of the county:
• Dunham spends his time in Brush Prairie, Battle Ground, Amboy, Yacolt and northeastern Clark County. He started out reading meters for the utility 16 years ago. He enjoys working with customers to solve problems. "I feel good about my job," he said.
• Bob West handles the southeast part of the county, including Camas and Washougal. West, who raised three sons as a single father, has worked for Clark Public Utilities for 32 years. "I know what it's like to have a tight budget. It helps to have been there," West said. "I feel like I make a difference in people's lives."
• Matthew Babbitts covers the northwestern part of the county, including Woodland, Ridgefield and Hazel Dell. Babbitts began at the utility in 2008 as an accountant and managed a weatherization project funded by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. "I'm fortunate to be in a position now where I can help customers reduce energy waste and actually make their homes more comfortable while lowering their monthly bill," he said.
• Rick Cantonwine handles Vancouver. He has worked for the utility since 1980. When he started energy conservation work, it was all about taking measurements and running calculations, he said. Now it's also about changing behavior. "We got more holistic," he said. He especially enjoys dispelling customers' worries -- for instance, when they think they see smoke coming out of their heat pumps, but it's actually just steam and perfectly normal.
The utility counselor program does not sell equipment, nor do installation, although it does offer rosters of local contractors who are approved to do work that qualifies for utility rebates. Counselors can tell you where to look for ways to cut energy waste and lower your bill, give you tips on how to winterize your home, or speak to your neighborhood group.
"Customers can come to us with anything related to using energy," West said. "If we don't know it, we'll find out."Energy Adviser is written by Clark Public Utilities. Send questions to firstname.lastname@example.org or to Energy Adviser, c/o Clark Public Utilities, P.O. Box 8900, Vancouver, WA 98668.